The book of Hebrews is one of the most unique of the books of the entire Bible. While the author isn’t known, the letter bears many references characteristic of a pastor’s sermon. As such it is fitting to call the author, pastor and as such during this paper the name “the pastor” will be used interchangeable to signify the author of Hebrews. Throughout Hebrews one of the repeated themes is the idea of falling away from Jesus. These passages in Hebrews are what are known collectively as the warning passages in Hebrews, and are one of the main arguments for being able to lose ones salvation and are essentially the foundational arguments for Arminian theology. As such, how one interprets Hebrews is an important component in ones theological framework.
One of the warning passages is Hebrews 6:1-8 where the pastor addresses the topic of falling away as well as a few of the basic doctrines for which all Christians should be familiar. Hebrews 6:1-8 shows the basic teachings about Christ such as repentance, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment should not be debated, but rather we need to be moving toward more important things such, preventing people from falling away from Christ. This passage should starts by introducing these basic doctrines and then advances to the warning of apostasy and what happens when people fall away from Christ. As such in this study, we will study the basic foundations the pastor has mentioned so we can focus on the more important ideas and the more highly debated theology such as the ability to lose one’s salvation.
The paper will discuss these basic doctrines of Christianity that are mentioned, in order to move forward into the more advanced theology of apostasy, just as the pastor did in this passage. The topic of apostasy has to be interpreted within the context of the passage, the context of Hebrews, and the Bible as a whole. Many people have studied this passage along with the other warning passages in Hebrews to see what God is attempting to show us. Then we will be able to be mature Christians as the author of Hebrews intended.
The book of Hebrews is one of the hardest to study simply because of the lack of information we have about the audience and the author. Because we do not know the exact audience or who the author is, scholars have not been able to give an exact background, but there are many areas given what we do know about the letter which can be extrapolated to give a background to the letter and who Hebrews was written to. We know the letter was written from Italy to an audience somewhere outside Palestine. These
members of the congregation to which Hebrews is addressed were obviously well versed in the OT and had been followers of Jesus for some time. Yet they were also in danger of compromising their commitment to Christ. They appear to have suffered from lassitude and from a tendency to neglect the gospel they had received. They had become slow to grasp the full significance of what Christ had done and of his continuing relevance as all-sufficient Savior. In fact, they were in danger of reverting to a spiritual immaturity totally inappropriate for experienced believers. The pastor fears that this lassitude, neglect, and regression might lead to apostasy from Christ.
This focus on repeated fallings away from Christ is one of deep concern to the pastor since it comes up repeatedly throughout the book.
Furthermore, we know some of what was happening in the area at the time. George Guthrie makes some great contributions to the scholarship of the book of Hebrews, and as such he addresses when the book is written based on the internal evidence from Hebrews and dates Hebrews as being written in the mid 60’s A.D.
just prior to the extreme persecution of the Roman church under Nero. At this point the Roman church had been in existence for about three decades. The conflict with Jews and the government in A.D. 49, which led to the expulsion by Claudius, would account for the earlier time of testing experienced by this community. Also Nero’s rising threat to the church accounts for the feat of death and the waning of commitment indicated in Hebrews.
Guthrie’s dating of Hebrews is one of the most logical and thorough of the dating systems out there and is supported by the text and historical evidence. This provides a framework for Christians reading Hebrews to base many of the warnings against apostasy and encouragements to stand firm in the face of persecution. It also accounts for why the audience would have been well versed in Christian teachings and would be expected to be more mature at the time of the writing.
The elementary teachings found in Hebrews 6:1-3 have traditionally been glossed over and C.E. Hill puts forth an argument that the traditional teaching of these elementary truths needs to be addressed in an entirely different light. He argues against what he calls a Pauline and Hellenistic interpretation saying that instead of addressing carnal Christians the author is rather using perfection language representative of the Old and New Covenants. Speaking of these elementary truths speaking of a Christian foundation, Hill argues “the passage does not entirely make sense in such a reading. Though the author says the audience needs milk, he refuses to feed the audience such “foundational” milk. Only solid food is appropriate.” He also addresses how none of the foundational truths are necessarily Christian, but could also be used in a Jewish synagogue without causing any stir. This is coupled with how the author uses language to move the audience toward maturity.
Peter Perry makes an interesting study in how the pastor motivates the audience to be more mature. His argument is rooted in how the author essentially shames the audience into being more mature. This maturity would not only take place in regards to apostasy, but also because they should be teaching others at this stage instead of still needing to be taught the basic truths of Jesus. “In contrast to infants, mature people eat solid food. The author then extends the commonplace educational metaphor of appropriate foods for different ages into an athletic metaphor. Because of a mature state, the sense perceptions of adults can be trained to discriminate between good and evil. The author of Hebrews shames the audience for not sharing in this mature state. Perry’s interpretation is more along the lines of the traditional interpretation Hill argues against, but like many other passages, there is an ability to have both primary truths as well as secondary truths. In this case leaving the elementary teachings of the Old Covenant but also having application among the elementary truths which are distinctly Christian, but also shaming them to move forward with what they know.
While Hill does make a good argument which would help with leading the audience toward maturity, some of his work leaves out the audiences current spiritual state, namely that they were already Christians which is accounted for by the traditional interpretation leading toward maturity. With this in mind the audience already knows the elementary teachings and ultimately Hill’s conclusion of what the audience needs to do progress by moving forward by “not so much the slow weaning process leading to Christian maturity but a radical dietary transformation feeding heartily now on the meaty teachings of the new, and perfect, covenant.” This is why the pastor no longer addresses the elementary truths, but goes forward with what his audience needs.
Therefore we can conclude the elementary teachings do consist of “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment” (6:1a-2) all of which need should be looked at through a Christian perspective. Therefore, we can see first of all, Christians need to repent from dead works, and toward faith in God. This here does argue against a faith and works approach and toward a recognition that whatever we do is not enough so we must repent of not believing in Jesus and towards believe in Christ. This is the first cornerstone and the only thing necessary for salvation. Once this happens we can recognize how other aspects such as washing, laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead as well as eternal judgment, while not exclusively Christian were taken for granted in the early Church in most situations. These would have all been topics most Christians, particularly those in the audience’s position where they should be mature, would have known.
Regardless of how one views the elementary teachings, either as a call to avoid the Old Covenant tradition and avoid the perils of falling back into what they had already left, or as a brief overview of the foundation of Christianity, these are nonetheless elementary truths which are only the beginning for the Christian. N.T. Wright gives a great description of elementary teachings by speaking of what many are familiar with already, namely the alphabet. He learned it as a child and then moved on through his studies through university. “You learn the alphabet early on, not so that you can forget it and learn it over and over again, but so that from that moment on you can take it for granted.” Therefore, we should know where we stand on these issues, so we do not need to continually visit these topics again, but rather that they might become tools as we study the Word of God and live more perfect lives for Jesus. This leads into the next topic where the pastor is able to bring about more understanding and couple it with other sections on those who have fallen away, the Apostate.
Apostasy is simply the falling away from Jesus, back to our lives prior to the one who died for our sins. In here we find the incredibly tough question which shapes much of our theology in Christianity, and also forms what actions we must take. While Christianity is divided into camps following some form of Reformed tradition or Arminian tradition, this is where great division can happen. The short version of the question is this, can someone lose their salvation? As we seek to discuss this, there become a lot more areas of Christian life which are impacted by this simple question. In this situation the question is whether or not someone who truly knows Jesus, has a relationship, and has repented of their unbelief in Jesus can turn back and reject God? If we can, that would imply that either God may provide the way of salvation, but Christians have some form or responsibility to follow that way, or they can walk away and therefore have to work for their salvation, either to attain it, or to keep it. If true Christians can lose their salvation that they already have, does this mean the gospel is not powerful enough to effect lasting change in those that have experienced salvation? If this is not the case, who then are those “who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away” (6:4-6a). These are important questions we will address in the next few sections, but the end result is summarized well by Wayne Kempson when discussing this passage and says,
Ultimately, salvation is measured only at the end of life. Until that moment, no one can judge another’s faith. Mere outward appearances cannot replace the need for a steadfast faith that endures to the end. Genuine faith presses on to maturity. This helps us comprehend why the review of the elementary teachings is foregone. Those who are pressing forward in faith need a deeper lesson in understanding who Jesus is. Those who have quit the journey will not benefit from another discussion of the basic truths which they reject.
The question of who the Apostate are is the single biggest part of the theological discussion that needs to be addressed. Are these sincere believers who have lost their salvation, or are they false sheep who have snuck in among the rest of the Christians and have somehow managed to taste the truths of Christ? In that case, what does it mean to taste the truths of Christ? Especially when taken at face value, it is easy to conclude those being talked about are true Christians who have rejected and thereby lost their salvation. While the general rule of Biblical interpretation that the simplest explanation is the best explanation is often true, but occasionally, not all is as it appears on the surface, and since this passage contradicts other passages about eternal security, it is important to explore this passage further.
While true of all of scripture, in this situation it is important to interpret this passage within the context of the passage at hand, the entire book it is written into, and then scripture as a whole. When we do that, the simple explanation is these Christians who are Apostate were never truly Christians in the fullest sense to begin with. We see “the writer asserts that their continuance in faith will demonstrate that they are members of God’s household, not that it will make it so in the future. Holding on to their confidence will reveal the reality they already have come to share in Christ, not what they will share. By continuing in faith, they demonstrate the work Christ has already begun.” This does not negate other passages such as Jesus’ declaration that those given to him by the Father cannot be snatched out of His hand (John 10:28) as well as numerous other passages relating to the eternal security of those who are saved by Jesus.
One last parallel to bring up in regards to the identity is to show how this is possible. Earlier on, the author of Hebrews used the desert generation to illustrate “the Word of God and his power are closely linked, and the language here is reminiscent of those who fell in the desert through lack of faith even though they had head God’s voice and seen his might acts.”
This brings us to a further question though, what have the apostate done? Especially due to the significance of the impossibility to be restored to God, it is important to understand this question. Furthermore, since it is impossible to leave God it begs the question the individual must ask, whether or not we truly are among the household of God? “The impossibility is almost certainly related to the finality of the sacrifice of Christ and the consequent hopelessness of one who knowingly rejects that sacrifice. The parallel in Hebrews 10:26 and 10:29 confirms this logic: one who insolently rejects the sacrifice of the great Priest over the house of God will find that no further provision for sin is available.” There is also the further concept that those who reject Christ have no where else to go. The sacrifices made on the altar were enough to stave off God’s judgment temporarily, but they could not absolve one of sins, so if one has rejected the only possible source of absolution, where else can then go?
This passage ends by discussing an illustration to further explain what is meant as well as to transition into the next section. The author uses terminology that is frequently used throughout the New Testament, that of crops. Crops were used to signify good things, growth, food, results and this passage is no different. As Jesus would say of false teachers, and therefore likewise false believers, “You will know them by their fruits” (Mathew 7). In the passage in Hebrews, the rain has fallen on the land, and one of two things happen, one it produces vegetation which is useful to the landowner, or it produces thistles and thorns, useful for nothing more than to be burned. While in the modern context it is easy to forget some of how crops grow and how reliant upon agriculture the ancient world was, this would not have fallen on deaf ears with those the pastor was addressing.
The first part of the pictures is that of the fruitful land, the land would have received God’s blessing. When drawing the parallel to daily living, these fruits would be those who are producing the fruits of the Spirit such as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). But there is more the barren land produces thorns and thistle, which are not useful and deserve only to be burned. We can see that both are possibilities within the context of the passage, and thus if the land produces fruit it receives God’s blessing, but if it is only thorns and thistles it is good for nothing but to be burned. As we have already discussed, the production of a useful harvest will be accomplished in those who are truly saved and the useful harvest will signify their salvation and God’s blessing in eternity. On the other hand, the production of thorns and thistles, of apostasy will result in God’s judgment and the burning by fire.
The passage of Hebrews 6:1-8 starts out with some elementary truths it is imperative for Christians to understand, not so we can continue learning these truths over and over again, but rather so we can move forward toward the more important doctrines and spiritual truths. As fundamental as these elementary truths are, they need to be understand and taken for granted much like the alphabet so we can focus on things which will result in the maturity of Christians. In this passage, the important thing the author of Hebrews wanted to focus on was those who have snuck in amongst believers and have fallen away. This is important to recognize God’s role in salvation as well as the reality and truth of our own salvation as well as how we will know if we are truly saved.
Bateman, Herbert ed, Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2007.
Cockerill, Gareth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Companym 2012.
Guthrie, George, THE NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Hill, Craig Allen. “The use of Perfection Language in Hebrews 5:14 and 6:1 and the Contextual Interpretation of 5:11-6:3.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57, no. 4 (12, 2014): 727-42, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1645736710?accountid=12085.
Kempson, Wayne R. 1994, “Hebrews 6:1-8,” Review & Expositor 91, no. 4: 567-573, ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed April 14, 2015).
Lea, Thomas & David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message, Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2003.
Perry, Peter S. 2009. “Making fear personal: Hebrews 5.11-6.12 and the argument from shame.” Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 32, no. 1: 99-125. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed April 14, 2015).
Wright, N.T. Hebrews for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
 Cockerill, Gareth Lee, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012, 16.
 Guthrie, George, THE NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998, 23.
 Hill, Craig Allen. “The use of Perfection Language in Hebrews 5:14 and 6:1 and the Contextual Interpretation of 5:11-6:3.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57, no. 4 (12, 2014): 727-42, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1645736710?accountid=12085.
 Perry, Peter S. 2009. “Making fear personal: Hebrews 5.11-6.12 and the argument from shame.” Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 32, no. 1: 99-125.
 Hill, Craig Allen.
 Wright, NT. Hebrews for Everyone, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 56.
 Kempson, Wayne R. 1994, “Hebrews 6:1-8,” Review & Expositor 91, no. 4: 567-573, ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed April 14, 2015).
 Bateman, Herbert ed., Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2007, 207.
 Guthrie, 219.
 Bateman, Herbert ed., 185.
 Guthrie 220.